Photo Op: Pentwater, Michigan — A Small Town on a Big Lake

Downtown Pentwater Michigan village on 4th of July with people sitting on curb waiting for the parade. Photo by BF Newhall

I took this photo of Pentwater on the Fourth of July, 2007. Folks are waiting for the parade to start. That’s the Centenary Methodist Church, built with local brick in the 1870s. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When I was a kid, Pentwater was not the place to be. The place to be was the beach, doing belly flops into the waves on nearby Lake Michigan. Or climbing Eagle Top. Or hunting turtles, or toads, or grasshoppers, or garter snakes, or chipmunks.

sailboats drydocked at pentwater michigan. photo by BF Newhall

Sailboats in May — waiting for the season to get underway. Photo by BF Newhall

Why spend time in town when you could be in the woods or on the Big Lake where the real fun was?

Still, every once in a while, we kids had to put in some time in town. When my mother went into Pentwater for groceries, for example. Or to do the laundry. (She’d wash our clothes at the pay washing machine place, then hang everything on a clothesline out back to dry.)

Sometimes, of course, we’d go into town for a movie, followed by a chocolate soda at Ken Lite’s Drug Store.

And now today, the movie theater is gone. So is Lite’s. As for the washing machine place, it  lost its reason for being long ago.

But Pentwater is still there, very much so. In fact, now that I am thoroughly grown up, I’m preferring Pentwater to the toads and grasshoppers of my 9-year-old self.

I like Pentwater’s old buildings of intricately laid, locally made yellow brick. I like the sailboats and yachts putting in on their way up from Chicago or down from Mackinac.

I like the smell of the lilac bushes, the oak and arbor vitae trees, the petunias and geraniums.

I like the  Antler Bar, which I was not allowed to set foot in as a kid, but now serves a mean

neon sign outside the antler bar in pentwater michigan with the word liquor in red. Photo by BF Newhall

More of the local yellow brick, and an invitation to conviviality. Photo by BF Newhall

hamburger and all the beer I can drink, since I’m not getting on the expressway (that’s what they call a freeway in Michigan), I’ll just be walking a few blocks to my B&B, which is charmingly situated in a 19th century wood frame house with  tall, skinny old-fashioned windows and a startlingly steep stairway.

I like to frequent the antique shops in Pentwater, some of them gloriously funky, as well as the

Detail of the gustafson building, pentwater, michigan showing the intricate yellow brick work and the tall narrow 19th century windows. Photo by bf newhall

The old Gustafson building with its intricate yellow brickwork and tall narrow 19th century windows. Photo by BF Newhall

shops offering arts and crafts produced by local folks, including some nifty weavings by my cousin Mary Helen.

I like just looking at Pentwater, being there. Pentwater inspires me to take pictures. I took a lot during a visit in May. (Go to my Flickr page to see more photos of Pentwater.)

Some Pentwater History:
  • Originally a lumbering town, Pentwater village was formed in 1867. A number of its buildings, including the Methodist Church, were built in the 19th century with local yellow brick from the nearby Pentwater brick yard.
  • Lake Michigan is really young — it was formed by glaciers  something like 14,000 to 20,000
    Detail of a screen door on a 19th century house in Pentwater, MI. Photo by BF Newhall

    Detail of screen door on a house built circa 1866. Photo by BF Newhall

    Victorian style white curtain in a Pentwater, Michigan, window. Photo by BF Newhall

    Victorian style curtain in a cottage window. Photo by BF Newhall

    years ago. Winds can gust up to 110 mph on the lake, and more than forty ships have wrecked along Pentwater’s beaches over the years.

  • In 1857, about 800 Ottawa, Chippewa, and Pottawatamie Native Americans were living in Pentwater. Today, according to the 2010 census, Pentwater’s total population is 857,  0.2% of which is Native American. That comes to two people, roughly.
  • Why the name Pentwater? I never knew as a kid, and I didn’t need to know. Pentwater was Pentwater, a place unto itself and not in need of explication. But as an adult I got curious. I found out that local Indians apparently called it Pentwater because of Pentwater Lake’s “pent up waters.” Historically sand from Lake Michigan tended to fill in the natural channel between Pentwater Lake and the bigger lake, until a concrete channel was built to connect the two

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Street scene of Pentwater, Michigan, after dark, with North Hancock lit by street lights. Photo by BF Newhalls. pho

Pentwater gets quiet early, even in summertime. Photo by BF Newhall




  1. Claudia Ressel-Hodan says:

    I am making a movie for the Pentwater Sesquicentennial this month. Do you have any pictures showing changes throughout the years? Anything you can send would be helpful.
    Thank you,
    Claudia Ressel-Hodan
    Pentwater Village Sesquicentennial Committee Member

    • Claudia, I’m looking forward to seeing your movie. Most of the photos I have have come from Reg Yaple at Bass Lake and Mary Helen at Lakeshore Realty. Please send links to your film, etc., when they’re ready and I’ll post links.

  2. Anne Pardee says:

    So charming. Do you know the Inn at Watervale? It’s on Lower Herring Lake and has similar historic roots and is fairly close I think. It was a very special place for family and friends while our kids were growing up during the 70s. We’ve had a occasional reunion there over the years but now your article (and the arrival of grandchildren) is making me hungry for more.

    Great memories! keep ’em coming! Your Tri Delt Sister in Berkeley, Anne


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